Naming Practices


Native Hawaiians had many names.  They had their spiritual or dream name, family name, and nickname or characteristic name and sometimes an event name.  Usually, once you find a name that the ancestor is using for legal documents, that name will be used on all legal documents.

However, this is not always the case so it is really important to search records looking for all the names that an ancestor was known by in order to locate the records that were left behind.  Many times a long Hawaiian name was shortened, for example, from Kamalaninui to Kama.

Before the surname law was passed in 1857 family members were all known by their own distinct single name and sons and daughters did not carry the surname of their fathers.  Even after the surname law was passed, especially in rural areas, the law was not always followed and some Hawaiians were still known by only one name into the early 1900′s.

On many early birth and census records you will see the terms ‘opio and liilii.  Usually, ‘opio is not a name but means first born.  There is an Hawaiian family with the Opio surname so be careful in your judgement of the term.  For instance, Kalani ‘opio means the first born male child.  An ‘opio male child may also become a Jr.

Liilii (li’ili’i) is a term that means diminutive or small while nui is expansive or big.  In John Sylva’s family, there were two Mealeana’s.  Meleanaliilii was the younger sister to Meleana.

In another example, Kauweliilii was later found as John Kauwe, Jr. and his father, known as Kauwe, was found as John Kauwe, Sr.

O-ka-lani, meaning of the heavens, found usually at the end of a long Hawaiian name sometimes indicated connection to royal lines.  In the name Kapulani the term Kapu means sacred person and so Kapu is also an indicator of royalty.  Only family members were allowed to use family names so the name John Naea Kanae would indicate this person was a descendent of High Chief Naea.

Most Hawaiian families will have a line or two that they can trace to a royal family.  Sometimes the connection is known and the name linkage is clear.  But many times Hawaiian families will hide their association to the royal lines by assuming a new surname to obscure the connection.

If a Hawaiian man married a Hawaiian woman of higher rank, he took her surname as their family name.  Sometimes Hawaiian women will show up on her death certificate with her family surname instead of her husband’s.  In the case of Mary Parker (John Parker’s daughter of Parker Ranch) who married High Chief Waipa from Kona, half of her children carried the surname Parker and the other half used Waipa.

If there had been a shameful event or a falling out in the family it is not uncommon for a Hawaiian family to disassociate themselves by dropping the discredited surname and inventing a new family name and all the future generations are known by the new name.

New names resulted from the Hawaiianization of Chinese surnames following the marriage of Chinese immigrants and Hawaiian women.  The following are a few examples of this type of name change:

Luke Wai of Halawa became L. Awai
Ah Sam Chow of Na’alehu became Akamu
Ah Kam of Hilo became L. Akamu

Chinese adopted Hawaiian sounding names and Caucasians sometimes did also.  Some Caucasians learned the native Hawaiian language of their new home and fully embraced the Hawaiian culture of the times.  An example of this is Kamehameha’s friend and confidant, John Young who was also known as John Olohana.  The reverse is also true.  As Caucasians assumed Hawaiian names, pure Hawaiians were known to change their Hawaiian names to Caucasian.  The pure Hawaiian Phillips family, for instance, from Kohala on the Big Island can trace ancestry to Pilipo Moke who became Moke Pilipo who became Moses Phillips.

It must be remembered that names were of great importance to Hawaiians.  The name that came to the parents or grandparents in a dream as being proper for the baby was a prophetic name and was though to influence the child’s mana and spiritual development.  If the child became sick, sometimes the name was changed and the child became well.  All of these considerations need to be kept in mind while searching for that elusive Hawaiian family that cannot be found because it can’t be predetermined what name they were using at the time.

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